The holyman, the emerald lake and the three stoned porters

I hiked through a Himalayan snowstorm and felt all tough … till we met an old holyman who had done it in just cotton robes and slippers

***

14th March 2001 | Uttarkashi – Agoda – Dodi Tal | the Garhwal Himalayas | North India

It was a 6:30am start, the beginning of a 5 day hike up to the snow-line in the Garhwal Himalayas. My guide, a softly spoken Garwhali lad with a boyish face called Kushal Singh Negi, was waiting for me on the other side of the Ganges and we packed the provisions in the back of the jeep.

We drove 6 hours up winding roads to Uttarkashi where Kushal selected three porters, quiet strong guys with broad shoulders, dark faces and each sporting identical moustaches.

They looked deceptively professional.

***

We’d be trekking a route to an emerald lake at 3,300 metres, then, if the weather allowed, we’d go up to the high altitude Dawa Pass at 4,300 metres.

By midday we had left Sangham Chatti and were walking up mountain paths flanked by rhododendron bushes, huge oaks and big drops down to bright green terraced fields where tiny brown cows grazed beside the Assi Ganga River.

Up ahead in the distance were iced peaks. “Are those the Himalayas?” I asked Kushal.

“No, we call them bugyals, they are high altitude meadows,” he replied. “In summer we send our cows up there to graze.”

***

It was a peaceful start to the hike, just the sound of birdsong and the occasional babbling spring. The Garhwal Himalayas are relatively untouched and the area, steeped in ancient Hindu lore is called Devi Bhumi, the land of the Gods.

Agoda village, Uttarkhand
The hamlet of Agoda

We entered the hamlet of Agoda perched on the side of the valley and were greeted by a group of young children who accompanied us for a mile, repeating occasionally, ‘ABCD’ and ‘one toffee’.

A group of women were meeting in the square to discuss the allocation of grazing fields. ‘Are there no men here?’ I asked Kushal. ‘The men have office jobs in Uttarkashi, the entire work here is done by women,’ he explained. There were even villages in Garhwal where patrimony was practised where a woman would have several husbands.

The porters were lost, and it was 4 o’clock, time for tea, so Kushal took us to see his friend the village watchman who lived in a beautiful wooden house with carved beams, wide open verandahs, sloping slate roofs; underneath the house he kept two huge angry buffaloes tethered to a post who took an instant dislike to me. The watchman said my black fleece was vexing them.

We sat there in blessed tranquility, on the verandah sipping weak red garlic tea overlooking a valley of young green wheat, watching the sun go down.

This was the life, I told Kushal to translate to the watchman. The watchman replied: “Maybe so but here every villager aspires to live in a big city.”

***

A lighting storm bubbled up above distant high meadows, and lit up the snowfalls in neon pink in a phenomenon known as ‘thundersnow’. I wondered if the porters would even make it this far; they had all our provisions.

***

We arrived in an old forest lodge a mile north of Agoda; it had no windows, broken doors and was halfway between shabby and derelict. It was a little bit spooky.

I took a bath in half a bucket of water by candlelight, soon the porters had arrived and smell of fried onions and paraffin filled the lodge. I ate a pile of chapatis and daal in the firelight very quickly because I was hungry and freezing.

‘It’s a good sign,’ Kushal said. ‘Hunger in the mountains means healthiness.’

***

Kushal was a Bhutia, considered to be some of the finest mountain men in the world. His father would walk annually over the Himalayas to Lhasa in Tibet to trade.

The men who surveyed the Himalayas

Bhutias, Kushal’s ancestors, played a great role in charting the Himalayas and became known during the British Raj as the ‘Pundits’.

The Victorians were always measuring things, always collecting things, recording facts and events with quill pens in large, earthy-smelling volumes. They used these measurements to build magnificent things such as railways, canals, the Royal Albert Hall and sewerage pumping stations.

The Himalayas were part of this Victorian mentality of understanding via measuring but this proved slightly problematic because the highest mountain range in the world straddled two other countries: Nepal (who mildly tolerated the British) and Tibet (which was closed to all foreigners and that included the British).

The British couldn’t just ride in on horses in red jackets, blow their trumpets and say ‘Could we possibly measure up your land? There’s a good chap’. No that just wouldn’t work.

Imagine your next-door-neighbour knocking on your door with a measuring tape in hand and asking you if he could measure up your house. ‘Why?’ you might well ask, followed by, ‘No, bugger off.’ At best, you would think this a bit dodgy. Why would he want to do that? At worst, you might think he would want to own your house. (The British actually did invade Tibet in 1904, it was called an ‘expedition’, and claimed that they were concerned about Russian influence)

Anyway, the British had to find other means of secretly surveying the Himalayas. They set up the Great Trigonometric Survey aimed to measure the whole of India; they recruited local Indians, trained them as surveyors and disguised them as pilgrims so that they could surreptitiously cross the borders without so much as a Nepalese or Tibetan eyebrow being raised. This was James Bond with theodolites, minus the vodka Martinis

The Pundits, brave and intelligent men like Nain Singh (who determined the altitude and location of Lhasa for the first time, and correctly said the Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were the same) had to learn to walk 2,000 paces to a mile and count them on modified rosary beads; they learned to use compasses disguised in semi-precious stones on walking sticks, to use boiling point thermometers to determine altitude, barometers, sextants and memorise the results as a poem or write them on paper kept in secret compartments of prayer wheels.

Never before had trigonometry, been so exciting; educationists would forevermore be kicking themselves; an utterly mundane corner of geometry (a right angle corner at that) could have been taught as a riveting spy story that involved covert science and the highest mountains on earth.

Thus, the Himalayas, its valleys, glaciers, passes and peaks were all charted to a remarkable degree of accuracy as part of the Geographical Surveyor of India over 150 years ago.

***

Agoda to Lake Dodital: a 6 hour hike through a snow-storm

We woke to blue skies and birdsong, fuelled up on cornflakes, toast, tea and the smell of fresh Himalayan pines. We crossed streams, scrambled over large boulders, disturbed wild fowl and pheasants which fired up in a flurry of red feathers. We passed ancient maple oaks and chestnuts.

This was it. This was what hikers aspired for. After one hour we looked back to see the porters missing. AGAIN. We got higher and slowly flecks of snow appeared in the nooks of the boulders.

Snow to many is quaint. It’s soft, feathery and Christmassy. Its flakes settle gently like eiderdown on noses and eyelashes. It is pure Julie Andrews. Not so in the Himalayas, here snow loses its romance. It is a burdensome and storms cause white-outs, avalanches, snow blindness, suffocating storms, and winds that give frostbite.

Suddenly the weather turned. Blue skies turned to dark grey and we were trudging in ankle-deep snow, facing a biting north wind. We waited for the storm to abate in a deserted hut for an hour and there we sat cold, without any food (the porters were not to be seen) and nothing to do but smoke some of Kushal’s biris

(Note: biris in India are little cigars, the size of a pellets, but unlike cigars they’re not exclusive or expensive but are the workingman’s darling.)

***

By 4pm we had arrived at a small temple on the banks of an emerald lake, filled with Himalayan trout, surrounded by pine trees and deodar, where legend says the Goddess Parvati rubbed mud from her leg which formed her son the elephant-headed god, Ganesh.

This was the holy lake of Dodital,

There were no other people here and the beautiful exuded a certain mystery; its depth had never been measured; two men had tried a couple of years before but had drowned trying.

***

The porters arrived and had decided to redeem themselves. They waded in to the shallow streams by the lake and caught five Himalayan trout. With the stealth of a cat burglar they would get behind the trout and scoop it up with both hands, holding it aloft like a slimy Oscar.

***

We pitched our tents, one by one beat our boots of snow and entered a small hut by the temple. In the smokey interior, was an old sadhu, a Hindu holyman, wearing saffron robes the same colour of the wood-fire flames beside him. He had a wispy, matted beard and put his palms together in greeting; Kushal greeted him like an old friend.

He boiled up some sweet tea in a battered old kettle then offered up what looked like chocolate cornflakes in a polythene bag.

Before I could indulge, Kushal warned me, ‘it’s charas.’

Charas? Indian sweets go by many different names, ladoo, borfi, papri chaat, jilabi. Not forgetting good old rasmalai. So this was charas? Much like any other Indian sweet right? Milk or sugar based? Very colourful, very sweet and a sure-fire way to gain weight and and diabetes?

‘It’s hash,’ Kushal said. ‘GUNJA.’

***

Now the porters started to become animated with just one look at the bag and with the glee of of children let loose in a tuck shop they took it, passed it round, chewing bits, drinking tea and lighting up their biris with sticks poked in the fire.

***

The porters settled down. It was 4.15 pm. Dope o’clock.

Because they were off their faces, Kushal had to cook. Soon the smell of cooking filled the little hut as he stirred away in large tawars and we were soon feasting on steaming food and fried fish with the smiling face of the holyman in the orange light of the dancing flames.

That night as I went back to the tent by the lake I looked up to see stars filling the sky like trails of spilled emulsion. Above us like a misty cloud was the Milky Way and whirling constellations in crystal clear iMax.

***

I settled in to my sleeping bag wearing sixteen layers of clothing. Yep 16. It is a little uncomfortable to be wearing 16 layers; it gives you the flexibility of the Michelin man, but it keeps you warm in minus 10.

Despite being so cold, I only woke twice in the night. At midnight I was woken by an animal sniffing outside the tent. I never found out exactly what it was, it either a sambar, a civet, a black bear or a yeti. Then just before dawn I woke to feel very thirsty but the water in my water bottle had turned to ice.

A few hours later I woke and unzipped the tent to reveal blue skies, a misty lake and glistening frosty-blue foliage. People who hate tents never understand that it’s not the tent we aspire to; it’s this bit, the unzipping rite of passage; the view to a perfect world.

***

The old holyman was already up, his prayers were done at the temple and he was collecting firewood by the lake. I sat with him on a tree stump and attempted to mime a chat with Kushal translating at times. He had arrived at the lake two days earlier and had made it through a snow-storm. ‘Where’s his gear?’ I asked Kushal.

‘No gear, he came like this,’ Kushal said, gesturing at his cotton robes and slippers.

Suddenly I felt very small.

***

We would be climbing up to 4,300 metres, to the snowline to see the peaks of the Himalayas and needed to make an early start in case the weather turned. But where were the porters? Missing again?

We searched the temple, the lakeshore, the tents and then we opened up the smokey hut. There they lay; one with limbs splayed; one hunched holding his knees; and one snoring under a blanket.

We left them there, in their state of contented torpor, and headed up the stoney path to try and climb 1,200 metres in 3 hours. We wouldn’t be making it along the pass. Snow or no snow, our porters were stoned and stoned porters are of little use on a mountain hike.

***

This was the third part of the blog series ‘Taking Buses Up the Himalayas’

To be continued.

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